With the much anticipated Breaking Bad returning this week (a terminally ill chemistry teacher teams up with a high school burnout to create a distinctive version of methamphetamine, Blue Sky, and hilarity ensues), it strikes me that the show has a lot it can teach us about business and branding.
The primary duo’s adventures are not unlike that of a startup company: They begin with an untested partnership, create a distinctive product, meet with investors, make some questionable business deals, dodge (very) hostile takeovers, face strict government regulation, struggle with competition and multiple staff changes and eventually—well, I don’t want to give anything away… but, through all of this chaos a brand is built. Some of it intentionally, some of it accidentally, but it is built as any brand is; through the minds and perceptions of the consumers and public who interact with their product. If you want to intentionally create your brand (NOT with meth, of course. We’re talking about a TV show people.) here are some insights you may consider as you watch the show:
UPS is brown. Coca-Cola is Red. Pepto is pink. Blue Sky is…blue.
When Walter and Jesse face supply problems they solve them with an ingredient which gives their product a distinctive blue color. This sets them apart from the drug’s normally indistinctive cloudy white. Narcotic properties aside, imagine walking down an aisle full of little bags of crystals. All are white, yellow and translucent but then you come across a single bag of blue crystals. It would pique your interest, wouldn’t it? It may look a bit weird and, from a distributor’s standpoint, take some convincing to get on the shelves, but it definitely stands out. And it gives people something specific to talk about. Someone who has consistently had the other kind may be tempted to try this new version just to change things up a little.
Even if there was a rainbow of colors in the, um, “crystal” market, blue is owned by Blue Sky. In this case, it was accidental. In real world branding and marketing, surveying the competitive landscape is crucial to seeing who owns what and finding a distinctive look which will make you stand out.
However, while being distinctive helps, you can’t rely on it entirely.
It helps if most of your competition is too high to care but, in most cases, your commitment to the quality of your product or service can be what sets you apart. Walter is a high school chemistry teacher and, arguably, a genius. Even though their initial “kitchen” is out of an old RV, he is absolutely obsessive about the quality of the ingredients and recipe. There are no shortcuts and this earns him a lot of attention.
You’ll hear them saying you don’t have to be that detailed and attentive. “It’s just a font” or “nobody will even see that part.” It happened with Steve Jobs when building the first Apple Computer. He ignored them, just as Walter did, and created an empire which had more money than the U.S. Government at one point.
They’ll notice. Even if they don’t notice they’re noticing, they’ll notice. And they’ll eat it up. Or smoke it in Walter’s case. Apple consumers continue to eat up everything they push out (pun intended), all because the founder had a clear, uncompromising vision.
When forced to directly confront a troublesome backer, Walter adopts the pseudonym of Heisenberg. Werner Heisenberg, where the name comes from, was a physicist who is most known for his uncertainty principle—definitely a concept at play within the show. The name has a scientific connotation which effectively positions him on a higher level than the Captain Cooks and Krazy 8’s distributing competing products. For the more informed, such as his high level competition, it also has a mysterious angle so it works on a couple of levels.
While Heisenberg is not the name of his product (that’s Blue Sky, which is equally strong, referencing the color and calling to mind a feeling), you could say it’s his “corporate” name. Imagine the packaging for that little blue bag now saying “Blue Sky from Heisenberg.” Sounds like quality goods, doesn’t it? Much more than “Blue Crystals from Albuquerque Methamphetamine Manufacturing” (which of course would be shortened to AMM for the sake of brevity but completely confusing the public as to what they do).
Oh, will it ever. Maybe not the gun-to-your-head kind but any new product will quickly face “me too” products and even other companies looking to just put you out of business. The current battle between Apple and Samsung is a great, real world example. Apple revolutionizes the smart phone market with the iPhone and just about every manufacturer then comes out with a similar product. Lawsuits eventually pop up. Products are banned. Bans are vetoed. Other products are banned. More lawsuits… it seems never ending. Are you prepared to defend your position in the market? As long as you’re in business, you’ll have to. It doesn’t mean just pushing what you already have. Increasing distribution, innovating and cooking up more buzz can all help create that “addiction” to your product even when similar ones come to market.
You can’t really advertise meth. It would probably tip a few people off. Heisenberg has to rely on word of mouth. At least a couple of times through the series, he offers a “free taste” to an important individual in order to get that word of mouth. Most importantly, those individuals weren’t typically users. They work on the business side of it and can make connections for him. Who do you know like that? Not just someone you can give free stuff. Someone who has connections. Someone with the reputation and network to help get you out there and spread that word. Don’t just go to a networking event or look for more consumers for your service. Look for those who have the same target market. Be aware of their brand though. Partnerships rub off on each other. Sometimes with messy consequences.
What can you say you’ve learned from Breaking Bad? Any business or branding ideas I missed? Let me know in the comments or contact me and I can do a follow up post with credit to you.